a short story
At the end of your life, what will you have to show for it?
The question hurtled across the dark room and caught a ray of light as it passed the door that someone had left ajar. Institutional light.
What’ll you make of yourself? The words howled down the corridors of a time past when she had allowed other people to define her life.
She pulled the ratty shawl she’d knitted tight about bony shoulders covered by a layer of crepe-like skin and rued the dropped stitch she hadn’t bothered to catch as it slipped yet another row towards the mustard-stained fringe.
At the end of your life, when death draws near . . .
The question bounced around in her skull like ping-pong balls in a Lucite box smeared with little kids fingerprints. It was powered by air, she recalled—a project at a science fair that demonstrated random molecular movement? Yes, that was it.
The box was broken now. Molecules split to atoms to neutrons, protons and electrons. And more recently, quarks—whatever the hell they are.
The shattered box of her beliefs, strewn about and discarded like clothes too tight and out-of-style. Like toe-crushing shoes.
She fingered the blanket, threading her fingers in and out of woven sterile cotton: institutional warmth, or lack thereof.
The conundrum chased her around the corners of decades. It unfurled and breathed heavily on the nape of her neck–raspy, persistent. Or was that her roommate once again in respiratory distress?
Her hands lay before her. They were still now—old, used hands with see-through skin. Gnarly knuckles that appeared warped and disfigured like twigs from the oak tree in her backyard. (At home, not in this place).
Hands that had touched, caressed, soothed. Healed even. And sometimes caused pain.
Her distended veins bulged: rivulets crossing the map of her life. She pushed back her skin, stopped the flow, released, and watched dark corpuscles stream back in, carrying life-giving oxygen to her cells. One more day of life—or at least a part of one.
Good-looking veins, she thought, but deceptive like her life had been. Stick a needle in that fat one and it’ll blow or roll.
That’s what fifty plus years of nursing did for her. The knowledge of veins, arteries and blood. And shit, piss and vomit. And worse—much worse. At the end of her life, what would she have to show? That she could read blood vessels?
Service can pass for love, she knew.
If she were her own patient, what would be her diagnosis of herself. Her mind clicked into scientific mode and she began to reflect.
There was the hard, hard heart she carried in a steel box inside her hollow, hallow chest. This woman can’t afford to feel in the face of so much loss: dead babies, dead everyone. Nope, too dangerous look at the subjective. Think it’s better to pass on that one.
A cool breeze blew in from nowhere, walked down the juts of her vertebrae and settled at the base of her spine. Fanning out, the chill expanded and squeezed about her body to embrace the emptiness.
Well, these were the facts. Two dead husbands; one dead daughter; a son gone missing; a divorce. Six dead dogs, one cat still alive. Not much money in the bank; a vacant, paid-for house, watched over by a neighbor (along with the cat, of course). A 12’ X 7’ cubicle in a room of three old ladies, surrounded by beige curtains—a hiding place, a box. 13K plus change in credit card debt and no one to leave it to. Ha-ha. A mind that bounces from here to there, imprisoned in a withered body; layers of skin that hang like empty sacks; lost promises.
A memory tossed her into the past: the day they’d painted their house a bright yellow with white trim: the happiness of the color and the joy of standing hand-in-hand with her second husband—the one she really loved because he loved her, too.
She shooed that thought away. Can’t afford to feel, remember?
The box is smashed and fragments of a life that could have been poured out. The diagnosis is clear: Altered reality; meaning deprivation related to . . .” To Nothing.
She’d read an obituary that morning about a woman who had it all wrapped up and tied with a bow, it claimed. Died in profound peace, it said. This mother, wife, friend knew where she wanted to go and went there, or something to that effect. They outlined it for the obituary readers: died surrounded by loved ones who would attend the funeral in the church, it promised. Neatly placed in her box. Amen.
That’s what she needed: the answer to the question, she decided, wasn’t in this place. She knew it wasn’t this—not a box-room filled with white sheets, white blankets and a white commode chair. Not the sickly smell of urine and dirty dentures and not a hand-knitted shawl with a dropped stitch and a mustard stain on gray yarn.
She needed a plan with color.
Dragging her legs, numb with cold, to the edge of the bed, she reached for her walker and grasped the rubber handles encrusted with grime—particles of food and feces—and hauled her ass into a standing position. She shuffled slowly into the open corridor with its fluorescent white sheen. Her droopy butt lay bare for all the world to see beneath the open back gown of flimsy gray and pink cross-hatched fabric bleached almost white.
She crept along the hall, stopping briefly at the crash cart that reminded her of OPI “Big Apple Red” nail polish. She palmed the vial of potassium chloride from the unlocked drawer of the cart, concealing it along with a 22 gauge, 1” needle and 5cc syringe. A scarf would do for a tourniquet, she figured and alcohol was academic, wasn’t it?
Approached by the evening shift nurse she requested an AMA. The LPN called the social worker but patient rights won out. As she signed the papers discharging her Against Medical Advice, the team called a taxi and the MD then helped her box her few belongings.
The plan was coming together.
At the end of your life, what will you have to show for it? The phrase rattled in her tin box heart as she slipped the key into the lock of her front door.
Musty odors of cat litter and un-lived-in, unclean linens overwhelmed her.
Purty, her cat mewled with excitement, threaded between her legs, stroking her back to life. Exhausted, she plopped into the overstuffed chair in the front room. A burst of dust enveloped her, but she was home.
She sat there till the early morning sky allowed light to slither around the edges of the curtains.
Purty curled up in her lap and purred and purred. Reaching over she pulled the blinds allowing sunlight to fill the room. Yellow sunlight bounced off yellow walls in her yellow house. It was still there, the yellow she remembered. Joy slipped in.
She thought about the drug stashed in her purse with the syringe, but let it be for the moment. Stretching out her weary limbs, she stood as Purty leaped to the floor.
I need another day she thought and decided in that moment it might be wise to reevaluate her plan. Instead, she wandered through her house in search of color and meaning. Purty, her calico cat, followed her everywhere.
At least have time to find something to show, she told herself, smiling that the last words on her chart were AMA, not RHC. Respirations Have Ceased. Smiling that she was, indeed, OOB.
No, not Out Of Bed. Out of the box.
As a nurse, I spent much of my time working with the elderly. This fictional account imagines how a retired nurse could feel about her life…if she didn’t have something to turn to–like writing! A bit of an explanation: in nursing, we applied the scientific method to patient assessment using a method called S.O.A.P–that’s what the Subjective (How are you?) Objective (What the nurse can notice) Assessment (Making a nursing diagnosis) and Plan (What to do about it) refer to. Don’t know if this is how it’s done right now…but it’s a good way to problem solve in any life situation. Try it with a problem you’re facing!
Victoria Ceretto-Slotto ~ A former nurse, Victoria is a novelist, poet, artist, and a docent at Nevada Museum of Art. Currently she is hard at work with final edits on her novel, Winter Is Past, recently accepted for publication. A second novel is in progress. Victoria finds inspiration in the mysteries of life, death, art and spirituality. She lives and writes in Reno, Nevada and Palm Desert, California with her photographer husband and two canine kids. Victoria shares some of her poetry on liv2write2day’s blog, where she also provides writing prompts and offers coaching with Wordsmith Wednesday. (Currently she is on hiatus from the blog while she completes the final edits of her book.)